Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie headline an over the top but powerfully feminist historical drama
Mary Stuart was only six-days-old when she inherited the Scottish throne after the death of her father, and 18 when she returned from France to claim it. Based on John Guy's revisionist biography with a screenplay by House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon, this adaptation assumes the mentality of a rebellious teen, crediting Mary with considerable personal conviction as this astute young woman challenges Elizabeth I over the English throne. Theatre director Josie Rourke steps up to direct her first feature film, pushing the envelope when it comes to the politicising of women's bodies with her feminist stance.
Saoirse Ronan turns in a sophisticated performance as Mary, switching between vulnerable and powerful. Her reintroduction to Scotland surrounded by her frisky ladies-in-waiting is deliciously intimate as they discuss sex, flirt with men and then give them the side-eye to ward them off. These girls have essentially got her back and Rourke imbues their dynamic with the passion of a modern-day girl gang standing up for their rights. It's an appealing twist on conventional historical dramas, slyly observing how women plot and protect. Sofia Coppola's 2006 Marie Antoinette biopic did something similarly edgy with its protagonist's teenage years.
However, Rourke hones in more decisively on the longing for sisterhood between Mary and Elizabeth (here played by Margot Robbie) prior to Mary's imprisonment and shows how they were essentially manipulated by men. Guy Pearce as William Cecil is seen scheming and whispering in Elizabeth's ear atop castles, with Robbie's monarch a blend of nervous uncertainty and confident outrage.
It's in a hurried conclusion that the film loses its head and authority, trying to neatly fit in events that didn't happen. Still, watching David Tennant wickedly spewing misogynistic speeches about Mary's sex life as John Knox is certainly entertaining. The film may seem over the top but, given the current global political circus where female politicians are targeted for their dancing, its ridiculousness hits a raw nerve.
General release from Fri 18 Jan.